Tony Allen: 'I am Afrobeat'

Rob Garratt talks to the drumming legend that spawned a whole genre of music

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Tony Allen – the 73-year-old master drummer widely credited with ‘inventing’ Afrobeat – comes across rather like a bitter old man. Bitter about the state of music today (‘music made by people who aren’t musicians’), bitter about being snubbed by Broadway (‘they didn’t even consult me’), bitter – amazingly – about frequently being labelled by people, people like Brian Eno, as the best drummer in the world (‘That was they’re decision – I just have to put up with it’). But more than anything, bitter about his old boss, Fela Kuti.

As drummer and unofficial musical director of Kuti’s Africa 70 band for more than a decade, Allen’s percussive prowess and ingenious arrangements defined what came to be known as Afrobeat, a quixotic fusion of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian rhythms with American jazz and funk sensibilities which, if anything, is more popular in the West today than in its ’70s heyday. Kuti – the music’s high priest, a maverick notorious for founding his own country, marrying 27 women on the same day and running for president of Nigeria – later said ‘without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.’ But since parting company with Kuti in 1979, a still-bitter Allen claims to have not listened to a single note of any of the 30 LPs they made together.

‘I’ve never touched his music since I left him,’ he rages. ‘(Fela) was my friend until he died. I recorded all his albums – but I’ve never even touched them, looked at them.

‘Why? I want to be myself. Playing my music. If I leave him and keep playing his music, he’s getting royalties – I’ve left him and I’m paying him royalties? I built my house slowly, but it’s my house.’

The foundation for Allen’s ‘house’ was to continue the Afrobeat tradition, mixing in elements of funk, dub and hip-hop over a trail of peerless LPs. His work was introduced to a whole new generation in 2000 when Blur played out their farewell single ‘Music is My Radar’ with Damon Albarn repeating the refrain ‘Tony Allen got me dancing’.

The two became friends (‘he bit my ear off,’ remembers Allen, ‘he was a big fan of me’), and the drummer joined the singer’s post-Blur project The Good, The Bad & The Queen, later rekindling the relationship in another supergroup alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, under the moniker Rocket Juice & the Moon.

Yet despite these diversions it’s the Afrobeat textbook from which Allen continues to preach. Indeed, as the genre continues to find a growing appreciation among hip, young (and predominantly White) crowds, Allen has gladly and grandly claimed a position as the music’s reigning authority. ‘Now people are getting it,’ he says, ‘Afrobeat is just coming to the limelight. Afrobeat is a new vogue… and I’m the controller of Afrobeat.’

This renewed interest reached its mainstream apogee with Flea!, a watered-down musical based on Kuti’s life which debuted on Broadway in 2009. The fact Allen was not asked to participate in the project is still a justifiable frustration. ‘I am part of the story and there’s someone acting me when I’m still around,’ he rages. ‘If they consulted me they might not have got so many things wrong.'

The absence of a call from Broadway is a telling signal of the distance between the legacies of Kuti and Allen. Where his former boss’ notoriously outlandish exploits are transformed into after dinner entertainment for New York holidaymakers, Allen continues to strive for something resembling authenticity, with largely successful results. Now living in Paris, international gig dates are invariably met with adjective-heavy, reverential reviews, while his last solo album, 2009’s Secret Agent, ranked among his best work.

‘I am Afrobeat,’ says Allen, assessing his legacy without irony. ‘If anybody is Afrobeat, they call me it. Drumming Afrobeat is a discipline. You have to feel the music. It’s in the mind. It’s not in the body – it’s the way you feel.’

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